Not every work hour is the same. While you can’t add more hours to your day, you can make the hours count!

Here are some factors that affect productivity:

  • Workspace 
  • Ergonomics
  • Time of day
  • Breaks
  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Food & water intake
  • Distractions and distractibility 
  • Temptations and impulse control
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Goal orientation
  • Stress 
  • Mental energy required

Review this list and highlight a few areas for improvement. Think of a strategy for improving each area, then implement strategies one at a time. Start with a strategy that is easy to implement but likely to lead to a noticeable increase in productivity -- to get the most bang for your buck. For example, carving out a quieter workspace in a less trafficked area of your home has the potential to solve several problems at once (e.g., reduce distractions, temptations, and stress).

Schedule Strategically

When revising your weekly schedule, you should think about when you do which type of task if you want to maximize productivity.

  • Everyone has high, medium, and low energy times of the day. 
  • Notice times of day when your mind is sharp and you have energy.
  • Plan your toughest tasks, the ones that require a lot of mental energy (e.g., critical analysis, focused attention, any new information) for high energy times. 
  • Schedule non-work activities to energize your work times. For example:
    • If you are distracted in the afternoon, take an exercise break to improve focus.  
    • If you find it hard to wake up in the morning, go to bed earlier.
    • If you need to take a nap, set a timer for between 10 and 20 minutes, and make sure you get up. 

Stop Procrastinating

People procrastinate for a variety of reasons. Contrary to popular belief, laziness and poor time management skills are not primary causes. Emotional and motivational factors, research indicates, play a bigger role. Common causes include:

  • Fear of failure 
  • Performance anxiety
  • Perfectionism
  • Not finding the work intrinsically motivating (personally satisfying or meaningful or enjoyable) 
  • Not feeling confident that you can do the work 
  • Lack of clarity about the goal of the work or your own goals
  • Not knowing where to start 

Often, the hardest part is getting started.  To stop procrastinating, try some of these tips:

  • Set a clear, concrete action as a starting point. Taking that first step can build momentum, help you focus, increase your confidence, and raise your interest level.
  • Set up external motivators. If you are not finding the work intrinsically motivating, then you can set up external motivators to get yourself to do the work. Here are some examples of external motivators:
    • Plan rewards (e.g., play time with your dog, a piece of chocolate, a walk with a friend) to give yourself after you complete a specific chunk of the work you must do.
    • Create a community among fellow students who also have work to do. Getting together with your study group or accountability group is the external motivator that brings you back to your work.
  • Find internal motivation. If you are not finding the work intrinsically motivating, try to reframe it by: 
    • Focusing on why you want to do the work. The task at hand might not be intrinsically motivating, but your long-term goals are. 
    • Making a game or a race out of it: How many words can you write in an hour?
  • Relax. Practice yoga, meditate, go for a run -- anything that lowers anxiety. If you feel calm and confident, you’ll have an easier time getting started. Visit Harvard's Center for Wellness and Health Promotion for more tips! 
  • Get energized! Listen to an upbeat song, dance, do jumping jacks, or anything that wakes you up and puts you in a positive mood.
  • Organize. Take five minutes (but not more) to clear your desk of everything except what you need for the task at hand.
  • Set a timer. Try setting a timer for 15 minutes and forcing yourself to work on the task until it rings. Most of the time, you will probably be on a roll by then. If you still can’t get going, take a break and do something totally different.
  • Work with a partner. Just knowing someone else is working at the same time, even offline, can help you get your work done. Some people call one another on Zoom, mute themselves, and get to work.
  • Join an accountability group. The ARC offers accountability groups and has tips for creating your own. 
  • If you would like help with finding strategies for getting started on your work, attend an ARC workshop on overcoming procrastination or managing perfectionism or schedule an appointment with an academic coach at the ARC.

Manage Distractions

If you are working from home, you may be finding more distractions than you had expected. Distractions can be categorized as external (a jackhammer, people talking, or a new text) and internal (e.g., “What will I have for lunch?” or  “Did I say the wrong thing?”). Some people are better at filtering out distractions than others, but anyone can limit external distractions and improve their internal filter.  Here are some ways to remove distractions:

External Distractions

  • Silence and hide your cell phone
  • Wear ear plugs or headphones
  • Post a “Not now. I’m working!” sign 
  • Work when the house is quiet
  • Face away from indoor traffic

Internal Distractions

  • Put your phone in another room
  • Keep a distractions pad
  • Use ambient noise 
  • Take timed breaks

ARC Tip: Distraction Pads: Sometimes we stop a task that took us a lot of time to get started on because we get distracted by something else. To avoid this, have a notepad beside you while working, and every time you get distracted with a thought, write it down, then push it aside for later. Distracting thoughts can be anything from remembering that you still have another assignment to complete to daydreaming about your next meal. Later on in the day when you have some free time, you can review your distraction pad to see if any of those thoughts are important and need to be addressed.

If you would like help with reducing distractions, attend an ARC workshop on productivity or schedule an appointment with an academic coach at the ARC.

Try Timers 

The Pomodoro Technique can help you balance focused and unfocused time. Here’s how you do it: set a timer for 25 minutes, work, set a timer for 5 minutes, and take a break, then start again.  One half-hour block is called a “pomodoro.”  After you have completed a set number of pomodoros (usually three or four), take a longer 30-minute break to reset and recharge.

You can use a simple kitchen timer, the timer on your smartphone, or any of the numerous apps available online. 

You do not need to follow the 25/5 method if other timing increments work better for you in general or for particular tasks. Everyone is different, so be mindful of your energy levels and avoid burnout. Scholarly work also varies -- sometimes you need focused time to get specific tasks done; other times  you might need unfocused time to find new ideas and approaches.